My wife and I sigh in disgust every time we see Sanford Health spending more of their patients' money on giant sports complexes and self-promotion instead of health care.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson doesn't sound too pleased, either. She grilled Sanford execs yesterday about their plans to take over Fairview Health Services and the University of Minnesota Medical Center.

Like Fairview, Sanford is a nonprofit health care company, and Swanson questioned why a tax-exempt organization like Sanford Health is spending millions of dollars on naming rights and other support for a civic center in Sioux Falls and university sports programs in North and South Dakota.

Link and Nelson said the sports-related gifts were in conjunction with Sanford’s mission to support sports medicine and fitness.

But after listening to Link describe various spending by Sanford Health to boost ­university athletic programs and local athletic facilities, Swanson asked him: “Can you see how the focus here [in Minnesota] should be on patients, not sports and athletics?” [Tony Kennedy, "Swanson Grills Sanford Executives on Proposed Fairview Merger," Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2013.04.07]

But Sanford Health wants the University to think very much about athletics and the money Sanford Health could offer them for it, if they'll just play ball on the hospital merger:

E-mails obtained by the Star Tribune show that [University of Minnesota president Eric] Kaler was also scheduled to initiate preliminary talks this past week in Sioux Falls with Krabbenhoft. Kaler canceled the meeting in part because of Swanson’s sudden inquiry, but he intends to reschedule even though he has proposed the university’s own takeover of Fairview — a move that would exclude Sanford.

In a March 25 e-mail to Kaler, Krabbenhoft didn’t mince words about his own enthusiasm for U of M athletics and possible funding. The e-mail provided a “discussion agenda” for the scheduled April 1 meeting at Sanford headquarters, including an item called “Denny Sanford and the U of M.” Another item of discussion was: “President Kaler-Sanford Health Trustee (post-Merger).”

Krabbenhoft offered to fly Kaler to and from Sioux Falls in a private plane for the meeting, and he summed up his e-mail with accolades for the U’s decision to fire basketball coach Tubby Smith. In the email, Krabbenhoft called himself a “Gopher forever” and said he also intended to write to “Norwood” about the basketball situation.

The CEO closed the e-mail with this personal “hope”: “that Sanford and Fairview come to a reality and I can get as deeply invested and supportive as I/we should be in the Athletic future of the University of Minnesota” [Tony Kennedy, "It's a Delicate Dance as Kaler Courts Wealthy Alum Sanford," Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2013.04.08]

According to testimony at yesterday's hearing, President Kaler "has promised not to ­consider any charitable gift from Sanford while Fairview remained in merger talks with the South Dakota firm." And no one will think about that elephant in the room.

Sanford Health claims they can save the Fairview system $40 million to $60 million with a merger. But more than a few people in the room don't see a need to give up their health care system to outside ownership:

“This is very, very, very serious business for all of Minnesota,” said David Finewachs, a former Minnesota Hospital Association lawyer, who was called by Swanson to testify that Fairview is stable, successful and not facing a financial crisis that would call for a merger.

The crowd applauded when he said any merger that would give Sanford Health control of the U of M Medical Center and Fairview would be like “selling the public library to Wal-Mart.”

He added: “We don’t need to export our most precious resources” [Kennedy, 2013.04.07].

Denny Sanford mostly gets a free pass from his beholden South Dakota beneficiaries. It's nice to see Minnesotans willing to tell South Dakota's big money man no.